Saturday, February 14, 2009

A Clash of Words

This sermon is based on a re-working of a sermon written by the Rev Dr. Lance Stone, Cambridge, England.

“It’s 10.42 on day 14 in the Celebrity Big Brother house, and Naaman is talking about his plans for when he leaves the house. He’s arranging to see a faith healer in Israel who he hopes will rid him of his skin disease once and for all.”

Anyone ever watch Big Brother? I really try not to, but sometimes, late at night when no one is watching… for those who don’t know anything about it, the concept is to take a really big house, lock a group of misfit people inside, and then keep the cameras rolling in every room, 24 hours a day, every day.

There is a minister, theologian, director of an ecumenical centre in England. This week he wrote that Naaman somehow reminded him of the show, Big Brother. Or rather, that Naaman would make the perfect contestant.

He has everything the show’s producers are looking for. He’s a war hero, a commander of a successful army and therefore a man of great power, and we all know that power is the great aphrodisiac. Indeed he’s a huge celebrity. We’re used to seeing his face at press conferences where the latest military propaganda regarding the Syrian army is dished out. Naaman is no half-forgotten fading star like so many of his companions in the house. This man is hot. And we shall see that he is a man of great wealth, and to crown it all - he is a leper. In other words we see a rare combination of power and vulnerability: just what the producers of this programme are looking for to give it all the ingredients of a real freak-show!

One person however who will not be appearing in the show is a young servant girl, an Israelite who has been captured in one of the Syrian raids on Israel, and who is now a servant to Naaman’s wife. She will not be appearing because she is of no interest to anybody. Indeed she represents a contrast to Naaman in almost every regard.

He is a powerful man. She is a young girl.

He is a commander of a victorious army. She is a prisoner of war, snatched from her people.

He is a celebrity, a man of substance. She is a slave girl who has nothing.

He is a big name. She is nameless, anonymous.

He is a man of violence. She is so compassionate that she sees Naaman not as an enemy but as a suffering human being who she can direct to a source of healing.

He has everything. She has nothing, except one thing. She has her faith, her witness: ‘There is a prophet in Samaria who would heal Naaman of his leprosy.’

So you see, if we were to base this story solely on the traditional understanding – Naaman is the hero. Strangely though, it doesn’t seem to work out that way.

It is this powerless girl that sets off a chain of events that sees Naaman packing up and heading into enemy territory. This is the beginning of a huge illustration about what is truly more valuable – the things the world values, or the things that make us more ‘human’.

See, Naaman lives in a world we really understand, we see it every day on television, and it is a world of celebrity and wealth. It is all about power and influence.

That is all he knows, so as soon as he hears about the healing available in Israel he heads straight off to the King of Israel, wallet bulging, and laden down with a wardrobe of designer clothes: ten changes of clothing, one for every eventuality.

These are the terms on which Naaman lives his life. These are the terms of the world in which he moves, with its protocols, and rituals, and etiquette. It is an exclusive world of winners and losers, of insiders and outsiders, and his problem is that his condition means that he is embarrassingly compromised. As a big chief with leprosy he is a winner - but also a loser. He is an insider - but also an outsider. But he can soon sort that out. There is a prophet in Israel, and with Naaman’s influence on the King of Israel, and his cash, and his wardrobe, he will soon put things right.

Have you ever encountered someone like this? Someone who is sure they can buy their way out of any problem… Someone who is so arrogant that they can’t even see that they are doing it the wrong way?

I bet Naaman has never met anyone like Elisha. Elisha is unimpressed by pomp and prestige and power. Indeed he is so unfazed by celebrity that Elisha doesn’t even want to meet Naaman. He sends a terse message, ‘tell Naaman to go and jump in the river seven times and God will heal him.’

Naaman of course is outraged. He wants to earn his healing. He wants to make healing one more commodity that he can buy, one more battle that he can win. But Elisha will have none of it. ‘Get you to the Jordan!’ Leave your false, inflated world and join this other world, God’s world where that dirty river becomes the River of Life.

You see, this is the point of this story. It is not just about a leper being healed.

It is about a collision between two completely different worlds, two entirely different orders. Naaman’s high-powered world on the one hand and God’s world on the other, the world of nameless nobodies like the captive servant girl, and Elisha.

This is the world where true power lies. And Naaman must make the long journey from one world to the other.

It is just the same with Jesus’ healing of the leper in Mark. Jesus here plays fast and loose with the protocols and taboos of his day. He goes out of his way to touch the leper, something forbidden and something he didn’t need to do. Jesus could presumably have healed the leper without physical contact. But by touching him, and not then isolating himself in quarantine as was laid down in the Law, Jesus is deliberately and angrily subverting the whole order.

Again, this is more than just a healing story. It is a clash of worlds, the subverting of a whole established and accepted way of life.

Of course, that other old, oppressive world is always reasserting itself. If you read on in Naaman’s story you will find that Elisha’s servant Gehazi cannot understand why Elisha does not take payment from Naaman, and he follows Naaman and deceives him into giving him money for the cure.

Ironically, just as Naaman seems to be getting it, Gehazi is going in the opposite direction. And similarly the old order that Jesus debunks reasserts itself viciously in the arrest and execution of Jesus.

But we see something in the figures of Elisha and Jesus who so deftly and so subtly subvert and undermine the old order in the name of the God of Israel. We see what might be possible for us.

Here we are in an increasingly secular culture with its devotion to its false gods, and which seems to clash more and more with the world of Jesus’ kingdom in which we try to live and in which we try to bring up our children. And increasingly we feel marginalised and powerless. In the clash of worlds, how can the world of Jesus’ Kingdom prevail in us?

Well, let us return to the servant girl in the story from 2 Kings: a powerless, young girl in an alien culture that does not worship or respect her God. But look at her again.

She is not powerless. She has the weapon of her quiet witness.

She has her simple testimony to the God she knows.

And it has power to subvert the seemingly dominant world of Naaman.

And so with us here, citizens of God’s Kingdom in an alien land: with our worship, and our witness, and the little opportunities God gives us to speak and to testify and to act.

By such deceptive means God’s Kingdom is advanced and other worlds are undone.


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